Focus on Road Signs – the Third Generation Missionary Diocese


Bishop Juhana Pohjola giving policy speech

Focus on Road Signs – the Third Generation Missionary Diocese

Summer Festival

Loimaa 5 August 2023

Bishop Juhana Pohjola

“You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favour her; the appointed time has come.” (Psalm 102:14). These words of the Psalm were in mind when the representatives of twenty-five congregations solemnly signed the Charter in Lahti on 16 March 2013. The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese was born. The moment was not one of defiance but rather of gratitude: The moment of the Lord’s mercy had arrived. We are now celebrating the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Mission Diocese. This milestone was preceded by decades of preparation assembling a confessional front within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. The fruit of this work was the Luther Foundation Finland, which was established in 1999 and has had a supporting membership in the Swedish Mission Province since 2004 and membership from 2009. In March 2010, Matti Väisänen was ordained in a memorable mass in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart in Helsinki as Bishop of the Swedish and Finnish Mission Province to serve in Finland. The Mission Diocese then continued this work independently under the leadership of Bishop Risto Soramies, who was elected at the inaugural meeting in Lahti.

A generation is defined as a time span of about 30 years. When we look at recent church history here in Finland, we see how in the 1970s, and moving across the boundaries of the traditional “revival movements” and even of the local congregations, the Holy Spirit was calling us to the Word of the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions. This could be called the first generation of the confessional front. It confronted the radicalism that began within the national church in the 1960s [translator’s note: The national church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, had a membership of approximately 92% of the population at that time. The Scandinavian Churches are “national churches”.]. This manifested itself in biblical criticism, a submission of the national church to the values of the surrounding society, and pressure to open the apostolic ministry to women contrary to the Lord’s command. Within the infrastructure of the national church, the first generation’s vision was that the church should remain a church faithful to its confessional foundation. The work of the confessional front led to the creation of the Pauline Synod [association] (1976) and the Finnish Theological Institute (1987). Many of the fathers and mothers of the first generation have already joined the rejoicing church.

In the spring of 1998, I first exchanged emails about the establishment of the Luther Foundation with the late Anssi Simojoki. He had discussed the matter with Simo Kiviranta and Sakari Korpinen. The Luther Foundation’s vision of “worshipping communities” was new in church history. This could be termed the second-generation push. The Luther Foundation gathered people from across the divisions between the revival movements from all over Finland. The mainstream, however, continued in the old revival movements, but gradually these worshipping communities were constructed. The second-generation confessional front no longer had access to national church premises, budgets or its office of the ministry. Nonetheless, within the national church we walked the long path of confessing the Seven Marks of the Church: the Word of God; Holy Baptism; the Sacrament of the Altar; the Office of the Keys; the Office of the Ministry; public prayer, praise and thanksgiving to God: and the Sacred Cross. In practice, our pathway within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland came to its conclusion. As a result of the organisation of the Mission Diocese, a number of our pastors ordained in the national church were defrocked and, by decision of the Bishops’ Conference, denied church facilities and membership in the pastoral collegium. We have travelled the journey from a confessional organisation within the national church to having become an independent Lutheran Church in Finland.

In the work of the Luther Foundation and the Missionary Diocese, we will soon have been building together for a generation. What better proof of that than these children, youth and young adults swarming around the festival grounds! We walk, of course, along the longer continuum of the Church in apostolic teaching, in the long train of believers, in worship life and ministry, all the way to the manger of Christ and even the empty tomb. As we in thanksgiving celebrate our tenth anniversary, we remember the generations who laid the foundations of our work, while acknowledging that we are living at a milestone of generational change. Some of those who are here have witnessed with their own eyes two generations of work and change. Others have joined in more recently. The young people are already asking what the third generational spiritual sphere and the Mission Diocese will be like. The important thing is that wherever each of us is on this pathway, we journey with patience, appreciation for each other, in fellowship, all at the same table of grace. Neither in haste nor holding back, but actually walking together!

What is our response as a Church to the question of a third generation mission diocese? The same answer that Peter gave to Jesus in Galilee: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. And Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’ ” (John 6:66-69)

1. The great retreat from the Christian tradition and faith

We in the West are witnessing a historic retreat from the Christian tradition. This is not just a question of institutional religiosity with its national and well-established Churches losing their positions in the face of secularism and individualism. We are reaching the point where the majority churches are imploding into a minority. In England in 2011 60% considered themselves Christian, now 42%. In 1972, 92% of the population belonged to the Church of Sweden, last year 52%. In Finland, where in the 1970s over 90% belonged to the Lutheran national church, now only 65% pay church taxes [The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland receives church tax from persons who are members and all legal bodies.]. These curves are rapidly descending. In 2010, 79% of children were baptised; in 2021, the figure was only 54%. The figures for those attending church range from the low digits to the tenths of a percent. We are devolving from being a Christianised homeland, through becoming a secularised welfare society, to arriving at a multicultural and pagan Finland-Finlandia.

As the blue cross on our national flag fades away, the white base colour begins to be filled not only with irreligiosity, but also with neospirituality and, as a result of immigration, with other religions, but then also with multi-faceted Christian traditions. New opportunities are opening up for congregations, which we have already experienced in our work with immigrants. It is difficult to foresee the outcomes of historical change. One clear consequence, however, is a change in the status of professing Christians. The Mission Diocese lives on a mission field. First, as a minority, we have to learn to encounter people who think and live very differently in regard to the Gospel, where the common Christian value base has broken down. How do we preserve our faith without ghettoisation? How do we maintain an interface with our surroundings without being sucked into the societal mainstream? How do we pass on the heritage of faith in our homes? Secondly, we have to see that the image of Christians has largely become negative. At least until the 1980s, Christians were generally regarded as perhaps old-fashioned, but as citizens who represented the backbone of the nation. At the turn of the millennium, Christian truth claims were questioned, but allowed to stand as viewpoints among other perspectives. Today, Christian beliefs and Christians themselves can increasingly be seen as a threat to the common good.

I think that our ongoing case in the Court of Appeals this autumn with Päivi Räsänen, Member of Parliament, makes this quite concrete. As recently as the 1980s, the mainstream would have accepted the basic guidelines of the pamphlet “Male and female He created them”. In 2004, the pamphlet was a criticised but nonetheless accepted as a defence of the Christian view of mankind and of marriage. From 2019 onwards, it is widely regarded as hate speech against sexual minorities. So what are Christians now hearing ever more stridently? This workplace, this company, this educational institution, this media outlet, these rental premises, this family will abide with no hate or discrimination! Get those things out of here! Of course, in our polarised times, there is real discrimination and hatred, and we also want to get rid of those. But in the midst of ideological intolerance and allergy to the Bible, it is worth asking what will replace it when the Christian tradition is abandoned. It is precisely those who cry out against Christians in favour of non-discrimination and equality who forget that these values are not built on the ideas of the French Revolution, the UN declarations, not to mention the ideas of the philosophers of Neo-Marxism, but rather on the conception and value of man as the image of God as revealed in the Bible.

The great retreat also touches upon faith itself and the Churches. The words of Jesus resound over all of Christendom as a great question: Do you also want to go away? Do you also want to go away, and adapt your message and your Church to the spirit of the times? I do not want to paint before you images of horror, but I cannot remain silent about the great deception taking place before our eyes all over the world. This is not, in essence, a cultural revolution, an ideology or about sexual ethics, but it is a spiritual issue and a battle of spiritual powers: Who is God? Who is man? What is the Gospel? We can give this spiritual apostasy different names. For example, we can take from the pages of church history the title neo-Gnosticism. With this new knowledge, the gnosis, a new language, a new conception of reality, a new moral yardstick, people are then divided into groups, reactionary and progressive. This is a perversion of God’s good order of creation, His will of revelation and His saving gospel.

Drunk on their own progressiveness, the wealthy churches of the West are pushing this, even as the the pews of cathedrals are filled with emptiness – and soon their coffers too. Church after Church is divided over the rainbow flag. The latest example is the division of a large Methodist Church  body in the United States this spring. A deep rift in the Anglican world was exposed in April in Rwanda when the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans decided to establish new alternative dioceses for homeless members in Europe. The meeting called on the Church of England and its Archbishop of Canterbury to repent of its rainbow policies, which are not only contrary to the order of creation but jeopardise human salvation (1 Corinthians 6:9). In Germany, the Bishops’ Conference of the Roman Catholic Church is promoting same-sex marriage and gender ideology right under the Pope’s nose. The Lutheran World Federation promotes a rainbow agenda in its member churches, while the member churches of the smaller but growing International Lutheran Council adhere to both natural law and biblical revelation. The same cultural pressure is spreading to Eastern Europe, where the Orthodox world is once again paralysed, but for another reason. The Patriarch of Moscow rightly rejects the gender movement that has enraptured the West, but falls into yet another ditch: blind nationalist power struggles and the preservation of the Church’s temporal interests in alliance with a state power that tramples on human dignity and fundamental rights. This is another danger Christians face when societies become politically polarised. If Israel flees from a corrupt Babylon and relies rather on the power of Egypt than the arm of the Lord, she will suffer!

In this shifting of the spiritual continental tectonic plates, we must observe a great spiritual division in Finland. We belong to those minorities who adhere to classical Christianity and who seek practical answers: “Lord, to whom shall we go when the world around us and the Churches have become fully estranged from your hand?”

We in the Mission Diocese are not indifferent to the developments within the Christian sphere in our country.  Because for us it has never been just about the Mission Diocese, but about how to preserve our holy faith and the Lutheran congregations as broadly as possible for the next generations. This issue is how as many as possible can be saved in this country too! Thank God, we by no means labour alone in this work! I know that there are still many in the national church who are quietly doing valuable work, albeit being under constant pressure to conform. Our calling is to seek communion on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions wherever we can. What a joy it has been to build a relationship with a 100-year-old Lutheran Church here in Finland, the Lutheran Alliance of Congregations. God willing, this communion of faith and doctrine will be formally recognized in the coming year. Beyond that, let our dialogue continue with those revival movements that still seek to be faithful to the Bible within the national church.

Cultural change and pressure from the national church are also visible in these movements, that is, by pulling them closer together. Lauri Vartiainen, Executive Director of the Finnish Bible College, said in the spring: “If the trend continues like this, the Finnish revival movements will scarcely be in the national church in after ten years.” Even if this would not be the goal of the movements, in both the national church and the movements themselves, the changes are rapid. On the one hand, the arena where activities can take place is becoming more cramped: the doors of the national church are being closed, pastors are not being ordained, the spigot of mission funds coming from the national church congregations is being shut off, and then, as well, theological divisions are growing. On the other hand, according to Vartiainen, the “divine service communities” [still not congregations, but providing the Mass] are the only growing form of activity in the revival movements. In an accelerating wave, a significant proportion of people have already left the national church in protest over its direction or because it is spiritually irrelevant to them. Thus, leaving the national church is not based on a collective decision of revival movement leaders from above, but a gradual process occurring at the grassroots level. This is not a massive march out, but a steady erosion. Young adults do not experience the same kind of connectivity with the national church as do previous generations. The problem is that a growing number of young Christians live without any church membership, although they may attend meetings of various organisations. Despite its valuable heritage, the old revival movement model simply no longer fully responds to the altered circumstances and the needs of the third generation. Actually, a situation in Christianity where the people are not church members and not congregation members as well is not in accord with the New Testament or, thus, the Lutheran Confessions. Jesus promised and intended for a better situation to prevail!

What does this mean for us? Thanks be to God, despite all our weaknesses and shortcomings, we have congregations and a church to live in, to be members of and to be a place to invite others. Hopefully, in this way we can also set an encouraging example that congregations are essential to the life of faith, that they can grow and that as a church we can live apart from the confines of the national church. Our third generation will build our future church without a constant, consuming internal struggle over the directions of the national church. With the third generation, the last ties to the national church, where many of our people have a dual membership, will in time be severed. Whether it makes sense for us in the future to register as a “religious community” [the term for an official registered church body in Finnish] is an open question. Under God’s leading, here, too, we will together find a solution. I hope that at some point in the future the possibility will also open up for an informed relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, despite our major differences. Increasingly, the frame of reference for the third generation is global and confessional Lutheranism with the member churches of the International Lutheran Council, just as many young adults and university students experienced in practice this summer at the international Corpus Christi event.

If the Finnish revival movements are not satisfied with an abridged core of the gospel and do not just seek a living space in a multi-faith rainbow church, them they will truly find their answers in congregational-type divine service communities. Then they will have a need for ordinations and spiritual shepherding, and an economically, theologically and functionally independent relationship with the national church. In such a situation, will the revival movements and the Mission Diocese not have more opportunities in the future to find common ground? Young adults, is this not a common vision and prayer challenge for the third generation!

2. In the bodily presence of Christ

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69) Peter looks sideways along the shores of Galilee. To his left the excited faces in the crowd are twisted into a grimace of disappointment. On the right, there is confusion at the offensive words about the eating of Jesus’ body. This then turns to a sorrowful uncertainty. One by one, the crowd turn their backs and walk away. At Jesus’ question the enthusiasm of the large crowd shrinks to a small remnant: “Do you also want to go away!?”

Did you notice? Jesus stops, takes his time and asks. He doesn’t blame people or force them: “Surely after all you have received, you will stay with me. You should understand, shouldn’t you?” No, He doesn’t do that. He asks a question. “Why?” Because you can only be with Him out of freedom, not compulsion. Jesus does not force anyone to stay with him. Jesus asks because he wants his disciples to internalise for themselves the meaning and cost of following him. Jesus wants to listen to what the disciples timidly have to say. Only in freedom can there be a personal conviction that can weather the storms. It is in this space of freedom without coercion that we too live. If Jesus asks, listens and discusses, can we not do the same? This is highlighted in our homes as our young people live in the growing tension between the tradition of faith in the home and the surrounding world of school and media. This is reflected in the reality that the third generation faces. After all, our Church represents a minority culture that is alien and downright frightening to many. For people to have the opportunity to come and find their place, they must have the time, space and safety to question and to explore.

As a Church, we remain united when we discuss together. And in order to discuss together, we need time in our congregations together. This is true in our families and in the family of God! For our part, let us each nurture this discussion!

What does Peter say?  “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Lord, to whom shall we go when we can no longer go to Mass in our home parish? To whom shall we go when we want to live and rear our children in our congregations? When I want to bring my friends to you? When my own heart is empty and in place of false slogans I thirst for the truth?

Where will we go? “You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God!” What was the motto recorded at the founding of the Mission Diocese? It is found on our coat of arms. Scriptura sacra ius nostrum divinum: Scripture is our divine right. What other could this motto mean than Peter’s confession: “You have the words of eternal life” We hold fast to the promises of Your word because in those words we hear Your voice. No one has the right to abridge them or take them away from us! Your words do not only tell of the Most High. Your words are not impulses to mercy, nor cushions for safe spaces. Your words are not a swamp dragging us down to drown in ambiguity. Your holy, clear and sure words reveal my shocking blindness and my state of damnation, but yet they bestow upon me eternal life! We believe and we understand that in and through them You, the Most Holy God, speak and act.

You, Jesus, are the Holy One of God. Yours is the Holy Bible in its entirety. Yours is Holy Baptism. Yours is Holy Communion. Yours is the Holy Mass. Yours is the Pastoral Office. Yours is the Holy Christian Church. In these are the words of eternal life for our souls and our bodies. This is what Peter’s confession means. This is the confession of our fathers and mothers and it is ours too. May the Lord grant that it will also be the confession of future generations!

We still want to hold on to these holy gifts of eternal life. What can we take away from them, what can we add to them! This is not a matter of preserving the heritage of the fathers, nor narrow-mindedly staring into the rearview mirror. No, this is living in Christ.

So we are not programmatically fighting a culture war or dismantling the national church, but confessing Jesus. We have been positioned in this time to confront, as Christians, the issues at the crest of the wave. We find the answers in the natural law, in the Bible and its Lord. It is important to see that in bringing salvation, Jesus also affirms and redeems the order and the value of creation. We acknowledge that Jesus, the true God, is the true man with a body and soul that cannot and must not be rendered asunder, even if the whole world prefers the emotional feelings of their own mind over the biological facts of sex. We confess with the angel’s testimony to Mary that “the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) Therefore, every human life is unique and precious. Life already begins in the womb and it must not be forcibly terminated. We confess Jesus, Who, in great pain, cried out on the cross, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46), even if the forces in our country would push for the so-called right to euthanasia and to choose one’s own death. We acknowledge that the Christian church is the bride of Christ. Paul writes of marriage, “This mystery is profound,  and I am saying it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32) Therefore, marriage is and remains a union of one man and one woman as a security for each other and for their children. It is to this incarnate Christ, to this incarnate faith and church body that we anchor ourselves! To acknowledge this gift of the body, to see the gift of life and the value of one’s own body, to rejoice in the gift of sex, to give oneself to God unmarried, to dare to marry and have children… All of this we encourage. This is the positive response of the third generation, whose counter-culturalism shines ever brighter.

Those who turn their backs on these life-giving and life-protecting truths turn their backs on Jesus. You cannot serve two masters! And at the same time we confess that the issue in this broken world is not just doctrines, but tangible, confused, wounded and truly distressed people around us. Lord, give us the grace to speak with your voice and look with your gentle eyes on each of those closest to us without distinction! Look to us who, in the brokenness of life, find ourselves or our loved ones at a loss over these matters. Lord to whom shall we go, for only You have unconditional mercy and unending love! Lord, have mercy on us all!

3. Boldly relying on the word of Christ

I recently learned an old Finnish word that was used for the then new product we now know as perfume [in current Finnish: hajuvesi, literally: scented water]. What do you think of the word sulolemu [literally in English: a sweet stench]?  Wouldn’t men love to give their wives an expensive bottle of that “sweet stench” stuff next Christmas! I don’t know how eager the ladies would be to spread that particular “sweet stench” around them! But Christians are like this: some wrinkle their noses at the stench, others smell of heaven. What does Paul write? “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” (2 Cor 2:15-17) Young people, the youth before me, may you be the generation of the “sweet stench”!

In the ten-year long journey of the Mission Diocese, we have already encountered many difficult situations and questions. But we have never had to think about one specific topic. Do we have room to live in? Is there still room for our activities? We have lived in a spacious place! (Ps 18:19)  We have had as much space as the whole of Finland, not to mention foreign missions! The only limitations have been found in ourselves and in our calendars. These things also apply to the third generation. The field is open! There is room! There is abundant grace! The Holy Spirit equips us! Even today, heaven is open to all! In 13 years we grew from one congregation to 25, and in the next 10 years from 25 to 42 congregations. Ask the Lord for even more! As our activities are based on, no, they depend only on, the eternal life of Christ, we will always have room for operations. But there is always a price to pay for confessing Jesus, and that is where we are tested in our daily lives. But even if He takes you into a narrow place, he makes it wide open, spacious. For who would have the power to drive our Lord into a corner or to deprive him of possibilities for action? That is why shutting up, retreating and complaining are not options for us.

At the time the charges for the crime of agitation against an ethnic group were brought against me in the District Court, I came across an article about the Greek word parrhesia. It means to tell the truth openly, publicly and boldly, particularly when it differs from the majority opinion. The author pointed out that in a world of increasing censorship and speech police, the Church is by its very nature a movement for freedom of expression. The book of Acts tells how Peter and John were arrested by the chief priests. They took them to court and forbade them to speak. Do you remember what the apostles upon being sprung from prison prayed with the church? When they were told to be silent. When they were seen as a threat to the common good. When it seemed that the road for the spreading of the church was completely blocked off. Did they pray, “Lord, give us a little cubbyhole to retreat to in peace? Lord, spare us from trouble. Lord give us justice and opportunities for activities.” They well may have prayed all those things. But what did Peter and the church ask: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness.” (Acts 4:29) Lord, give us parrhesia, grant us with all boldness to speak your word. For, Lord, you alone have the words of eternal life. Only in Your word do we have the Holy Spirit, our Advocate. Only by Your word can we live, die and stand at judgment!

Dear friends here at this summer festival – and the third generation of the Mission Diocese: with all boldness as a Church, let us proclaim the word of the Lord in this time and in this land! With all boldness let us live by the grace of Christ. With all courage and resilience, let us build congregations to be homes for ourselves, for the next generation, for those who are seeking and those who are not yet seeking. With all courage, let us also dare to reach out and listen to those who think differently than we do about faith and life. This is what I pray for our Church as the third generation matures and takes responsibility for our congregations. This courage does not just mean shouting on social media or making loud statements in the workplace, but above all it means we become so weak that we cannot live without the words of Christ’s life. We have different callings, but all of us share the same promise of Hebrews which Simo Kiviranta, the founding father of the Luther Foundation, chose as the text of his own death announcement: “We have confidence / full rights / courage / parrhesia to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus.” (Heb 10:19) The right and courage given by the atoning blood of Jesus carries us through!

I watched a documentary about Nicholas Winton. Who was he? He was an English businessman who went on holiday to visit a friend in Prague in December 1938. Surprisingly, he ended up running a project especially to take Jewish children to safety from before the approaching Nazi army. The only problem was that in order to get a child out of Prague by train, he or she had to have a foster home in England. So, Winton photographed the children and presented the catalogue of photos in the English papers: Would anyone want to take one of these children into their home? Those who were chosen were offered a place on a train. A cross was drawn over the picture of these children in the file. The parents of each child marked with a cross put them on a train at the Prague station, leaving them, fully knowing they would surely never see them again. Of the thousands of children, only 669 reached safety before the war spread to Poland and all the borders were closed in September 1939. Of the Jewish children who remained in Prague, only a handful survived the horrors of the Holocaust.

Even today we see heart-rendering images of children fleeing war and war orphans in both Russia and Ukraine. This time and chain of events is not so far away from us either. My own father, with a name tag around his neck, was transported to Sweden as a war child to escape the bombing and threat of occupation in Helsinki. Outwardly, he was safe, but internally he was sorely separated from his parents. And on top of everything he was placed in a different family from his brother. Watching this documentary myself, I was left wondering how people would have reacted to my picture in a newspaper. Would I have been accepted into a home or would I have had to say: Do you want to go away too?

Dear friends, our greatest challenge is not how this culture around us will become more negative or how churches will be divided in the midst of deception. No, ultimately our main question is this: Jesus, do you want to go away from all of this! Will you withdraw from me after seeing everything about me and my life? But what does Jesus say to you? With what does he assure you today? I will not withdraw. I do not want to leave you. I will not leave you. I have marked you with my cross. I have marked you with the sign of my cross. You are my baptised child. You belong to my church family. Friend, do you hear: there is not one orphan, not one abandoned, not one forgotten, but all are children of the Heavenly Father’s mercy! You are a beloved child of the Father!

This is our security and hope, this is the certainty and spaciousness which past generations and future generations have to live by. It is by this that the Mission Diocese lives as part of Christ’s worldwide church. To this communion of grace we invite others.

Thank you Lord Jesus, you Holy One of God, you are my life and my eternity!

You can watch the lecture in the YouTube window below.

Juhana Pohjola

Bishop of the Mission Diocese